Fifty Years for a Refrain

A New Vision for Pierre Koenig’s West Coastal Design

The Henbest-Birkett Residence, 1966-2011

by Andrea Dietz

The roads that wind through the higher elevations of Rancho There, through a door-slip that upholds the illusion of an Palos Verdes are made for Sunday driving. It’s possible, even, that Sunday driving was made for them. Wide and lazy, they meander up slopes and along ridgelines, intermittently opening up on incomparable vistas of blindingly blue waters and closing down on alleys of tree-canopied grass-manicures backed by role-model homes. It’s the perfect cruising grounds for weekend reflection, the kind of taking stock best satisfied at twenty-five miles-per-hour, with the top down, and a brisk breeze blowing.

At that pace, the occasional property wall is a cruel disruption to the rolling daydream speculations on the lives playing out beyond the car body, behind the rhythmic pattern of painted doors and curtain-framed windows. A sudden blank facade betrays the back-seat imagination, pushing it to assume reclusive extremes of hidden inhabitants. Certainly, the obscuring barrier rarely is perceived as an indicator of the progressive. But, as with all things, there are exceptions. And, it is an uncommon surprise that waits on the invisible side of a sleek ipê board fence sited on a western bluff above Los Verdes Golf Course and overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

There, through a door-slip that upholds the illusion of an unbroken street-front blockade of vertical planks, the recently rejuvenated work of one of southern California’s iconic architects holds quietly onto, ready to reassert, the light and air ideals of mid-century optimism.The microcosm beyond is more than a crystalline encapsulation of the Modern spirit; it’s a vital argument for the timeless vision of the simple and the seamless.

Fittingly, the first steps past the entry gate into the Henbest- Birkett lawn encourage traversers to shake off the weight of whatever ails or grieves with a literal hop and a skip.The poolside paving – as it stitches outside ground to courtyard water feature, and then to home shelter – weaves its followers into both place and cheer.This playful fluidity then spreads across the lot, drawing the open and the closed together in a subtle game of boundaries and demarcations.

The house that frames this unified terrain, read as an abstract form, is an accordion canopy hovering above a u-shaped, transparent box. As an articulated, architectural composition, it is a careful arrangement, in the vertical direction, of glass panels sliding through and around strategically opaque wall screens and room volumes; in the horizontal direction, the rise and fall of flat and pitched ceiling and minimally stepping floor planes correspond to activities programmed beneath and upon them.

The product of such a thoughtful assembly of surfaces is a sort-of never-ending residence, a public front green that becomes, within the bridge of the “enclosure,” a wide hall for cooking, eating, and gathering and then, outdoors again, a springboard for gazing into the worlds of whales, islands, and celestial figures. Flanking this out-and-in-and-out space, within the structure’s outstretched arms, are the private hideaways, the beds, the baths, and the studies – utilitarian and intellectual, that work simultaneously as a part of and a retreat from the goings-on.

Indeed, the casual passer-by of the Henbest-Birkett house cannot know that the experience within its masked compound is akin, not to going back in time, but rather to a pulling forwards and dusting off of the past. In this place, reaching back and grabbing onto the infinite possibility of the 1960s is almost conceivable. It strikes such a fine balance between inside and out, the communal and the independent, as to inspire a forgotten sense of freedom, of compatibilities between concepts since deemed too diverse to mix. Here, the ambitions for a happy balance of culture, economy, nature, and technology, are outfitted for today.

This hopeful conjuring was not an inevitable fate for the Henbest-Birkett house. It began its existence as one of Pierre Koenig’s lesser works. When it went up onto the drafting table, the young architect already had achieved his notoriety as the designer of Case Study Houses #21 and #22; his status amongst the Los Angeles greats, those to whom the region owes its image of color and style, was secure. He was in the process of being awarded an Assistant Professor position and of laboring towards tenure at the University of Southern California’s architecture school. He was engaged in the detailing and construction of several of his other well-known projects.

All indications are that the Henbest-Birkett house held, for Koenig, a different sort of significance. It was one of two residences, very much alike, that he prepared between 1965 and 1972 for Harold and Martha Henbest on two separate, but proximate, plots in Rancho Palos Verdes. Either because the Henbest’s were friends and he wanted to minimize the publicity brought to them or because he appreciated the endeavor as a strict commission, any archived documentation of a descriptive backstory is limited to a few cursory ledger entries identifying dates and times of phone calls and meetings.

Even if his attention was divided, Pierre Koenig clearly took the design opportunity to make incremental advances on his research agenda. A long-term advocate, to the point of seeming exclusivity, of steel structure, he appears to have compromised in the wood framing of the Henbest-Birkett house. Given that Koenig, since he was a student, had eschewed the use of timber as archaic and wasteful, the selection presents, at least, a potential conflict. Planning records reveal, however, that the project was just as much a contributor to his lifelong campaign to innovate with building materials as those in the rest of his portfolio.The house, in actuality, was a call for the consideration of a new industry development, of micro-laminates or engineered lumber, as a viable option within an expanded palette of alternative open-plan construction approaches.

Another of Koenig’s signature responses to the boom in post-war suburban housing and the accompanying ideals of social betterment was the thorough integrating of inhabitation and environment. As he described the notion in reference to his most acclaimed work, the paradigmatic Stahl house, he once declared: “All my statements are not inward . . . I look outward and the people inside are projected outward to whatever is around them.That’s my attitude towards . . . building.”This condition is manifested, substantially if latently, in the Henbest-Birkett house.

Achieving such encompassing inclusivity on a tight suburban lot, in Rancho Palos Verdes, was no mild proposition. The neighborhoodis a portion of the former Bixby estate acquired for a development through a syndicate headed by Frank A. Vanderlip, Senior. It derived its initial character under the 1914 to 1931 masterplanning direction and “rancho” style guides of the Olmsted Brothers and their affiliates. Between Vanderlip’s Italianate-village mandate and the distinguished landscape architecture firm’s City Beautiful standards, the peninsula was to become an exemplar of aesthetic engineering. But, the project faltered with the Crash of 1929 and gradually gave way to looser patterns of development.

By the time Koenig was submitting blueprints for permits to the local regulators, the restrictions imposing “organic unity” and enforced by the area’s Home Association and Art Jury had relaxed considerably under community pressure.The tenor, though, set by the biases and tastes of the preceding decades undoubtedly juxtaposed starkly against the bold ideas for an exposed and Modern house.

Still, something of Koenig’s presentation of designing from the human out, of employing architecture to reach into and embrace the expanse beyond, must have resonated with the approving committees.The Henbest-Birkett residence remains, as one of its only “glass” houses, a Rancho Palos Verdes anomaly.

The Henbest-Birkett house, a comparatively modest and stayed Pierre Koenig manifestation, could not compete, perhaps, with his more stunningly polished and situated works. After it was finished, it faded into fifty-years of a remote family narrative. Still, in its coming-to-be, it posited a radical contextual intervention.This challenge, then, or its raw coded prompt, lay dormant, intrinsic to the project’s DNA, waiting for the off chance to reinvigorate a living debate.

Fast-forward to 2011, the combination of the Henbest-Birkett house’s minor historical role and its almost-but-not-quite realization of Koenig’s talents positioned it for an unanticipated elevation. As Robert Sweet, the designer who would go on to reinterpret the property, explained: “We were fortunate that it was not one of Pierre Koenig’s better or well-known houses. It had all of the privilege without all of the pressure.”

The Henbest-Birkett house and Robert Sweet, alike, were the gut finds of the residence’s current stewards, Stephen and Elizabeth Birkett. A tour entrepreneur and Mid-Century Modern design and furniture enthusiast with a keen eye for promise, Stephen Birkett tells a serendipitous tale of treasure found and championed, of happenstance encounters with a young man on a construction site, and of an enthusiastic partnership in the unveiling of an undervalued gem.

Robert Sweet, the principal of a Redondo Beach design-build studio, moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest in pursuit of the California style. He worked for a series of boutique firms, but longing to start his own thing, he purchased property and developed a home for himself – on a high-traffic street.The building, which performed as a billboard, was what attracted Birkett to Sweet and was where the Henbest-Birkett house’s second life began.

For Sweet, who long had admired Pierre Koenig, the opportunity that Birkett offered him to engage his mentor’s work was irresistible – and humbling. Acutely conscientious of honoring and being true to the integrity of the original project, he immersed himself in Koenig’s legacy, studying the files at the Getty Research Institute, securing a private tour of the Stahl house, and even meeting with Koenig’s wife and son. He understood that his responsibility to the house and to its new occupants was mutual; and he did the homework to mediate the two.

Sweet’s informed and refreshed set of eyes alone, however, cannot be granted sole credit for the Henbest-Birkett house’s coming-into-its-own. Societal changes, the leveling of household hierarchies, the evolved role of the kitchen in entertaining, an increased comfort with the casual and the behind-the-scenes, enabled a reconfiguration once likely perceived as gauche. Increased spanning capacities within structural systems, then, supported these openings-up and upon.

Together, though, Sweet and time have crafted a Henbest-Birkett property almost more Koenig than Koenig. An overgrown garden has become a new pool, matching Koenig’s original, but never built, specifications. Where brush and trees once stopped short the vantage, there is a sweeping lookout over Catalina and its sea surounds. All impediments to sightlines through the house – egress partitions, suspended cabinets, and solar fins – are removed.

The master bedroom and its services are expanded; the shower in the master bath actually walks outdoors onto a secluded side patio.The infill towards the once detached-garage gives the north- ern bedrooms space to stretch and a diaphanous corridor to prome- nade. And, it’s all accomplished without revising the diagram, while retaining the language of the founding finishes and fixtures.

Many, of course, would consider touching a Pierre Koenig house at all an extreme act. Indeed, when construction on the alterations first began, neighbors, panicked by the disappearance of the glass envelope and the presence of a Bobcat loader, grabbed Stephen Birkett – Koenig monograph in-hand – and pleaded with him not to destroy a cultural monument. He calmly elucidated his scheme – justified the cleaning and upgrading of the sliding doors, the clearing of vegetation – and pledged: “I can assure you, we are not tearing the house down.”

The Henbest-Birkett house may begin to suggest a renewed platform for exploring the relations between expectations for lifestyle, building, land, and climate. But its real revolutionary current rests, precisely, within its response to the passage of time. Decisions to adapt or congeal, the subjects of active debate in preservation circles, take on exponentially increasing complexity as the products of Modernism succumb to age. A movement for the new and temporal does not go quietly into the old and the permanent.

There are those, in turn, who have come to espouse creativity as critical to the reading and manipulating of history. For Jorge Otero-Pailos, a leading representative of this thinking, “pollution is our most important product as a Modern civilization”; to write over the dirt and flaw of the ages with the tools of conservation is just as substantial an erasure as with those of refashioning. So long as an architecture’s originating motives and principles are continuously pursued, the conversation with that which came before remains true.The staging of evolution, in this bias, is prioritized over the freezing of a fixed moment.

With a debt owed to its slow maturation, the Henbest-Birkett house, then, sets its first precedent as a rare example of a landmark from one era in a compelling dialog with the present. Through it, Pierre Koenig and Robert Sweet are talking; yesterday and today are talking. And, all of this talking might just be a cue to keep talking – that, and to pause before dismissing the featureless or fortressed walls along the asphalt routes of those wheel-crawling holiday jaunts.

Bibliography

Birkett, Stephen (owner). 17 January 2015 interview. Rancho Palos Verdes.

Gates, Thomas P. “The Palos Verdes Ranch Project: Olmsted Brothers’ Design Development for a Picturesque Los Angeles Suburban Community of the 1920’s.” Kent State University: Architronic, 1997.

Jackson, Neil. Pierre Koenig 1925 – 2004: Living with Steel. Hong Kong: Taschen, 2007. Jensen, Andrew (RPV planner). 04 February 2015 interview. Phone.

Koenig, Pierre. Papers and Drawings. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 03 February 2015 archive visit.

Otero-Pailos, Jorge. “The Ethics of Dust (2009).” www.vimeo.com/5745305. 05 February 2015 website access.

Sweet, Robert (architect). 22 January 2015 interview. Phone.

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